You can take the good kid out of the mad city, but can you ever truly take the mad city out of the good kid?
After a number of listens to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, the album released by TDE's golden boy on Monday, the answer is clearly no.
Lamar's latest album is a complex and layered musical conversation wrapped around the concept of a caterpillar and a butterfly. The butterfly is the evolved form of the caterpillar that's admired for its beauty, much like Kendrick is the bright, talented Compton kid that has gained widespread acclaim.
But don't let Kendrick fool you, he's still a Compton caterpillar when it comes down to it.
"Although the caterpillar and butterfly are completely different, they're one and the same," he says in a spoken-word poem that closes the album.
The journey isn't as pretty as it may sound. Butterfly soars because our hero lets us into the deep and dark recesses of his mind, where he explores his conflicted moral values and even contemplates suicide, before realizing he'll inevitably have to go home again.
No, this isn't your average hip-hop album. Driven by a jazz, funk and hip-hop fusion, TPAB takes fans on a roller coaster of feelings, with some serious emotional dips.
The ride kicks off with "Wesley's Theory," a cartoonish rap funk-fest where Kendrick dreams about striking it rich, sleeping with white women and bringing an arsenal of M-16s back to the 'hood. Because that's when you know you made it, right?
Well, not quite.
The Rap Fantasy That Becomes A Nightmare
"u" doesn't come until six tracks into the album, but the self-reflective drinking session is Kendrick at his lowest -- and the LP's most telling selection. Looking in the mirror, Lamar chastises himself for leaving Compton to live that rap fantasy while his loved ones still struggle back home.
There's some serious survivor's guilt here.
First, Kendrick sounds ashamed as he raps that he failed to prevent his teenage sister from becoming pregnant. Then he cuts even deeper as he raps about a buddy he lost to street violence.
"A friend never leaves Compton for profit/ Or leave his best friend's little brother, you promised you'd watch him/ Before they shot him," he spits with a drunken slur.
On the song's second act, we learn that the mighty Kendrick Lamar isn't always as strong as he appears onstage and his bouts with depression have brought up dark thoughts.
"You should've filled that black revolver, blast, a long time ago," he rhymes, seemingly referring to himself. "And if I told your secrets, the world would know money can't stop a suicidal weakness."
That's the moment on the album when jaws drop and fans hit the rewind button. Even if Dot's "suicidal weakness" was just a moment, the lyrical dramatization leaves a permanent mark on the listener. It humanizes the rap star even more and changes the course of TPAB almost halfway through the 16-track LP.
Kendrick's revelation isn't for shock value, however, and after the other shoe drops on "i," Lamar's mission becomes clear: To Save The Hood At All Costs.
As a standalone, the happy-sounding Isley Brothers-sampling "i" may come across as a pop-style pandering to radio, but in the context of TPAB, "i" becomes a necessary exercise in self-love -- and communal love as well.
Throughout the LP, Lamar shares a number of lessons like this. "The Blacker the Berry" and "King Kunta" are both chest-pounding power anthems while "Complexion (A Zulu Love)" gives a soft melodic hug to black people of every shade. "You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)" promotes individuality, while "How Much a Dollar Cost" is a deep and unexpected conversation with God.
At the end of "i," Dot spits a freestyle where he reclaims the N-word and traces it back to the Ethiopian word negus, which loosely translates into "king":
"The history books overlook the word and hide it/ America tried to make it to a house divided/ The homies don't recognize we be using it wrong/ So I'm gonna break it down and put my game in a song," he raps furiously, before declaring himself the "realest negus alive."
The Fallen Butterflies
Every track has meaning and, on the album closer, "Mortal Man," Kendrick ties it all together by referencing other butterflies like Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson and the late 2Pac, who he sits down to "interview" with the help of some clever studio editing.
During the 'Pac interview, Kendrick shares poems with his rap hero and together they speak on classism, redistribution of wealth and the black man's fight in America.
The Compton Caterpillar Goes Deeper Than Rap
The fact is, Kendrick Lamar already set himself apart from rap (and pop) artists everywhere in 2012 when he dropped his classic major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and now, on To Pimp a Butterfly, he continues to separate himself from the pack by giving us more than just music.
On "Black Boy Fly," a bonus track from gkmc, Dot raps about being jealous of Aaron Affalo, a fellow Compton native who made it out of the 'hood and into the NBA.
Back then, Kendrick was a Compton caterpillar looking enviously at a butterfly flying into a world of unknown possibilities. Now that Kendrick is the butterfly, he's bringing jewels -- an album that every hip-hop fan must listen to -- from that unknown world to the rest of Compton's caterpillars.